Cognitive Psychology

Understanding Transphobia: Conflicting Gender Cues Irritates Ambiguity Intolerance

While my student Peou wasn’t transgender or having any gender identity issues that she voiced to me, she certainly, at least, from my point-of-view, sported some androgyny, especially for a prepubescent eleven year old: she had a deeper tembre to her voice, wore her hair both long and short, and never wore typically female adornments like earrings, nail polish, or even the skort of the school uniform. In short, she didn’t display any of the typical girl cues, and I assumed she was a boy for over a year.

Much to my surprise, and chagrin, he turned out to be a she and unlike your adopted stray turtle that ends up hatching a clutch of eggs, this error left me feeling quite disturbed and wondering how I could make an error of such magnitude. I was certain that she was a boy. How could I be so wrong?

Be sure to check out the post in which I tell the entire story in detail. It is both amusing and interesting.

Let’s walk through some of the ways that we determine gender in others and draw parallels to the discomfort that transgenderism activates in conservatives.

I’m NOT a Transphobe!

I am not a transphobe, homophobe, or any other kind of intolerant bigot. I’ve worked hard as my many blog posts attest to work through many of my prejudices. And, like my grief from working with people with AIDS, I thought I had done so successfully. That is until the universe saw fit for Peou’s and my paths to intersect.

I worked in the gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic from 1987 to 1992 or so. I did HIV blood test counseling interviewing people for their risk factors, i.e. gay sex activities. I spearheaded the gay bar outreach program where we tested in gay bars. I was a case manager for people with AIDS when everyone who had AIDS was a gay man. I’ve worked closely with crossdressers and trans people for years. I’m comfortable with all of it. I can talk to anyone about anything and accept it all without the least aplomb.

I was a straight married non-smoking white vegetarian back then working in the gay community. As I used to like to say, I could have a headache with anyone… and I did!

There are specific cues that we use to determine the gender of the people we’re meeting. Bona fide science has figgered it all out!

Gender Cues

We evolved to be a dimorphic species meaning that there are two distinct versions of us. That distinction is phenotypically, socially, and individually expressed. Every culture has gender specific roles that are have corresponding identifiers. Women do this, men do that. It helped us in our hunter gatherer days; it doesn’t help so much now.

Cultural Cues

Culturally based gender cues include hairstyle, clothing, adornments, and names. Traditionally in the West, girls have long hair, wear dresses, and wear jewelry. They don’t engage in rough physical sports and violence. Traditionally.

Of course, nowadays many of those traditions have been bent. Boys are wearing makeup and jewelry including dangling earrings. Girls are playing on college football teams, albeit as place kickers.

Gender specific behavior starts young. I remember when La Petite Fille declared that she couldn’t do something — I’ll be damned if I can remember what exactly — because that was for boys when she was three. People treat newborn infants differently based on gender. My point is, even children engage in gender-specific behaviors. Peou had rejected many of those girly-girl behaviors.

For many cultures these cues extend to names names. We still give girls girl names, and boys, boy names. That didn’t help here because Peou was Khmer and I don’t recognize their gender-specific names. Culture had let me down.

Facial Features

Facial features can indicate gender. Men have a larger more prominent bone structure, especially across the brow, cheeks, and chin, giving men a more “chiseled” look. Women have softer lines in their faces and higher arching eyebrows.

We can see some of this in action in the morphing of faces from one gender to another:

Figure 1. Facial gender is considered to be a continuum over masculinity or femininity (Geometric).
Figure 2. An example of a morph continuum, changing a female face (original and source images) into a male face (destination image) (A basic guide).

The problem is that most of these cues are dependent on the sex hormones of testosterone and estrogen in order to form, which are available in sufficient enough quantities until puberty strikes. Peou was pre-pubescent meaning that she hadn’t experienced puberty and the secondary sex characteristics that it causes including the softening of facial features. Facial features had let me down.

The Role of Assumptions and Predictions

We make judgments about people, especially strangers, based on the cues that we get from them. Yes I’m talking about stereotypes, but in the absence of direct knowledge of someone, we rely on the gender, racial, and ethnic markers that we all display to help glean information on which to base predictions on how our interactions may go. This was especially true in our hunter-gatherer days where all of our human characteristics evolved. We used these obvious signs to guide us to assumptions about a stranger. Basic assumptions like friend or foe, angry or not angry, liked or disliked.

It is human to do this. There is no getting around it. You can’t be color blind. Sorry, whitey. It just ain’t possible. We can, however, override these assumptions with cognitive effort. Unfortunately, it takes effort. In the case of my encounters with Peou, though, I was not encountering any negative stereotyping, just a fundamental assumption about another person’s gender that would be used to guide my behavior towards her if in no other way than selecting pronouns.

Being able to predict another person’s behavior and attitudes is fundamental to our sense of safety and sense of control of our world. When encountering a stranger, we use what information we have. Our hunter-gatherer forebears relied on it to keep them safe.

Ambiguity Tolerance and Intolerance

My encounter with Peou brought up the question of contradicting cues. What happens when an individual is displaying both masculine and feminine cues? What happens when their gender is ambiguous?

Ambiguity is the mental state in which information is vague, undefined, or otherwise unclear to the perceiver. If you cannot determine someone’s gender, their gender is ambiguous. The way that we deal with ambiguity is one of the many distinguishing factors between conservative and liberal. Some people tolerate ambiguity better than others. I bet you can guess how that divides out along the political spectrum.

Ambiguity tolerance is the quality of a personality to accept a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations. This ability also correlates with increased creativity, decreased risk aversion, improved psychological resilience, and the acceptance of diversity and lifestyles… you know, liberals.

Ambiguity intolerance is the quality of a personality to experience a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations as a threat. These folks feel threatened as in fight or flight response when they cannot predict the likely outcomes of a situation. This characteristic correlates pretty highly with authoritarian personalities. Not particularly surprising. You know, conservatives.

Imagine a conservative dude encountering a bitchin’ babe but realizing that she has a prominent adam’s apple and large wrists like some common Rupaul. Imagine Brock Turner finding her all passed out behind a dumpster and getting his fingers all up in there only to find that there really ain’t any all up in there it be getting his fingers all up in to. How do you expect him to feel?

I mean how is a teenaged Boof-K to know who to rape if everyone can determine their gender based on what they feel it is and not on what Boof-K can force his member into? I mean, come on, you can see how upsetting it is, right?

I mean, what if Trump were to grab some nubile young nymph by the pussy and it turned out not to be so nymphy? How is he supposed to feel good about bragging about raping women if he can’t be 100% sure that these are actually women by his definition of women? We’ve got to think of the rights of the rapists here, don’t we?

It is those mixed gender cues that many transgendered individuals have that drives conservatives to distraction because on the one hand, BOOBS! but on the other, DICK!

My experience with Peou was a lesson in ambiguity, how we resolve it, and what happens when we have to adjust to a new reality of having been absolutely wrong about something as fundamental as the gender identity.

My point here is that it is completely understandable that this situation is discomforting. It doesn’t mean that we should succumb to that discomfort. Inclusivity takes effort and work to confront our internalized biases and prejudices.

If you enjoyed this anecdote out of my life, my explanation of the psychology behind my reaction, and generalization to the wider world, then consider doing one or all of the following:

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Image Attribution

This was the feature image from one of my first posts back in May 2016 called Schema Your Head Off. Unfortunately, it was before I was being careful about licensure and copyright. A Google image search reveals that it was used by MonCupid on their DeviantArt account. If it is found to violate any copyright laws, I will gladly remove it.


A basic guide to Psychomorph – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 21 Oct, 2021]

Geometric Facial Gender Scoring: Objectivity of Perception – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 21 Oct, 2021]

16 replies »

  1. Fascinating. In conversation with my not all that unlike your pupil granddaughter (GD), one who has played second-fiddle her whole life to an older autistic brother, I’ve drawn the hypothesis that much of it is a rejection of the social order (not unlike what we went through fifty years ago). GD sees her brother get away with just about everything, including physical abuse; behavior she would not get away with, hence a desire to be more like a boy, to get away with stuff. She’s also twelve years old and a freaking genius. She sees what happens in the greater world around her ~ men get away with behavior she would not ~ and wants if not be a man to at least pass as one. Ten years of fist fighting with her brother I pity the fool that bullies her. I probably shouldn’t show her anymore short-guy tricks. I don’t think any of her “confusion” at this time is “sexual”, I think that’s stuff others ~ men ~ apply to what they can’t understand or control. She’s still a child.

    Sadly, there’s a dark side. Depression, interspersed with autistic-like outbursts; cutting. My pity for fools is not unwarranted.

    This is my experience and my experience only, does not speak to the experience of others …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ten!

      Your granddaughter sounds pretty wonderful and scary. Scary in that she knows how to handle herself but also that she has that dark side.

      Most people’s behavior no matter how mystifying makes sense on some level. They are doing their best to cope with the stresses of their lives with the tools that they have that includes all the gender confusions and trans feelings.

      I don’t know that there’s any more of it, but it is certainly more accepted to talk about it and report on it. One of the most influential clients I had was a young man who had been born as the fraternal twin of a sister. His sister died at birth. His mom was so devastated that she raised him as a girl. Understandably, he continued to crossdress and identify as a girl for large periods of time in his life. He really helped me understand the internal and external influences that drives crossdressing and trans ideation.



    • Howdy Bob!

      I had written it as one post, and it clocked in at 1800 words or so. I slept on it and realized that I hadn’t said near enough about why the mixed signals were irritating to some people. I went back and reread my post on ambiguity reaction and realized that it really had to be part of this one as well. It’s nice that you picked up on the ambiguity issues that ensue from such situations.

      The more I thought about my reaction to finding out that I was wrong about this child’s gender, the more I realized it was fundamentally different than other mistakes like getting their name mixed up or country of origin or some other aspect of their lives. For example, I found out I had a Cambodian student who didn’t speak Khmer. She’s part of Teochiu community who were a minority group in China that began immigrating a few hundred years ago. My reaction to finding out that my assumption about her wasn’t disbelief but curiosity.

      It really is the inability to tolerate ambiguity that drives a lot of trans and homophobia. That you can’t predict behavior based on appearance. Part of the backlash against democracy is driven by the fury of being put in the position of adapting to the needs of others. One way to look at MAGA Nation is to see them as having a large group temper tantrum.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely – The expectations based on gender identification are deeply, deeply established, beginning at the pre-verbal level (blue onesie or pink onesie?, crying ok or not ok). It is also part of homophobia.\

        Temper tantrum is right, like how they react to the argument that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask is not just to protect yourself, but others. That doesn’t work, instead, it really enrages them. And asking them to adapt by using the gender neutral pronouns for the comfort of others – OMG! Utter tyranny and the end of civilization.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          The studies of how infants are treated based on whether the participant believes them to be a boy or a girl are fascinating. But, the way people treat them are culturally dependent depending on cultural gender roles.

          Our physical world is strangely stable. Sunrise and set are predictable. Temperature and weather are similar from year-to-year. Inanimate objects remain inanimate. Species don’t change into other species. We’ve grown to rely on that stability. It makes the world predictable.

          Our non-physcial world is stable, too. Personality and culture are relatively stable, too. They change slowly and adapt to circumstances. We quickly habituate to environmental changes making stable changes more difficult to appreciate — a big problem with our impressions about climate change, by the way.

          I see our biggest problem as being nursing, cajoling, and nudging MAGA Nation out of the miasma of mass psychosis. It will take lots of work and a concerted effort… but that is predicated on preserving our democracy. If we don’t do that, we’ll be confronted with how to maintain our democratic ideals and cultural belief in equality.

          I feel like I’m late to this dance, though. I feel like I shoulda seen the issue of relating to, understanding, empathizing with the psychological forces driving MAGA Nation sooner. Because, if we can understand it, then we can diagnose it more accurately, and then treatments will be more likely to work.


          Liked by 1 person

          • I think we were not well served by the dismissal of the MAGAs as “The Deplorables”. It certainly pissed them off, but worse, blocked the empathy needed to respond effectively, and helped the would be authoritarians frame the contest as existential.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              I think we play into the hands of the master manipulators of MAGA Nation when we react angrily and severely — understandable though it is. That’s the thing about needing to use our cognitive abilities to override our instinctive or unconscious emotional reaction. It is completely understandable to be angry and frustrated by the vaccine refusal and willful ignorance coming out of the GQP’s base, but it doesn’t do any of us any favors to act that way.

              I’m as guilty as anyone of being angry with and making fun of MAGA Nation. But, it is time to come round to taking constructive steps to rescuing our nation from the authoritarian extremists who are looking to take it over. We play as much into their hands by reacting as predicted as MAGA Nation does.


              Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m 61 years old & I’m bisexual. I don’t “identify” as bisexual, I AM bisexual. I always thought I was as much boy as girl but I know I AM a woman … I was born a woman … I AM a woman … I have always been a woman … I don’t want to change my sex … I don’t need to. Yeah, there’s things that suck about being a woman … like periods … but as much as periods may be a total & complete pain, sometimes I have loved them … I really have. Because it meant that I wasn’t pregnant.

    & now … I don’t get them anymore … & I am in my crone years … which is a whole ‘nother song & dance. I had cancer … I had a full hysterectomy when I was 49 … another story. But I am STILL a woman.

    I have issues with men pretending they are women. If wearing black face is disrespectful to black people why is wearing woman face OK? How is that not disrespectful to women?

    & I have issues with girls wanting to be boys … getting mastectomies … why would you do that? Why would the medical establishment allow any person to cut off healthy tissue? It’s insanity!

    I was a tomboy growing up … maybe I wanted to be a boy … but I knew I was a girl … & I knew that I had the best of BOTH worlds. Why is nobody telling these girls this? That you can have the best of both?

    & why do they allow kids to take puberty blockers? You’re SUPPOSED to go through puberty! & it’s supposed to SUCK! That’s part of growing up! That’s how you learn! That’s how you grow! That’s how you mature!

    I know that there have always been men who have dressed as women & women who have always dressed as men. Hell, half my wardrobe is menswear. But what’s going on now is different. It’s driven by Big Pharma & the plastic surgery industry. It was one thing when it was adults wanting to change themselves. But now they’re going after children. It’s child abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Silver!

      Very provocative comments here. I really want to explore the analogy between blackface and crossdressing. Transgender differs from crossdressing, though. There are drag queens who are not trans. Trans means feeling that you are the opposite gender. You’re in the wrong body. Some terrible mistake has been made. Crossdressing is dressing as the opposite gender usually for entertainment purposes.

      Blackface not only was dressing as an African American for entertainment purposes, it was to further the negative stereotypes of Blacks. I haven’t watched a lot of drag shows, but my impression is that they are not playing on the negative stereotypes of women unlike, let’s say Phyllis Diller’s or Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy did, or even your average James Bond movie. I don’t know. But, it is a worthwhile avenue to explore. I don’t know what we’ll find down there.

      I certainly have no idea what it is like to be trans to feel like you’re really the opposite gender trapped in the wrong body, but when I see the extremes that people go through to live their authentic selves: putting up with the grief that the world gives them over it, experiencing the stress of not living their authentic selves, i.e. the lie, or the stress of living their “inner” gender, and then the transition surgery, it tells me that if you’re going to those extremes, there must be a damned good reason. No one goes through those experiences lightly.

      Just like no one chooses to be gay, no one chooses to be trans. It is so much easier to exist as the majority on any of these points that no one would make the choice not to.

      I learned these things working as a medical social worker. People who are gravely ill either physically or mentally often don’t look it. They often seem fine, but can be in a lot of pain. The lesson was that when someone said they were in pain, you accepted it as true. You didn’t always give them opiates to treat it, though. Someone’s subjective inner experience is theirs. There really is no way for anyone to judge it.

      I don’t know how many children are exposed to trans ideas early in their lives. Certainly it is more so than when we were growing up (I’m 61, too). Children are impressionable because they are looking for social rules to follow. Give them the rule, they’ll follow it. That’s why children are so keenly aware of gender roles starting at about two to three. It is also why there were strong guidelines among medical professionals that you didn’t do transitional surgery on adolescents. There is good research into the effects of supportive transitional therapies for adolescents.



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